The lonesome martyrdom of Jeremy Corbyn
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Less than 1 year after leading Labour to win over 10 million votes in the general election, Jeremy Corbyn was temporarily suspended from the party. He is still not allowed to sit as a Labour MP. How could the beacon of hope for the British left fall so far so quickly?
by Phil Butland
One year ago, it seemed so different.1 Jeremy Corbyn was leading an election campaign with a manifesto pledging significant social reform, paid for by taxing the rich. His radical plans had a widespread level of support. In a poll of reactions to Corbyn’s demand to renationalise the big four industries, “water topped the poll (83%), followed by electricity (77%), gas (77%) and the railways (76%).”2
We all know now that Corbyn didn’t make it and that Boris Johnson became British prime minister. Even so, 10.27 million people voted Labour in 2019. This was down on the 12.88 million who voted for Corbyn in 2017, but considerably more than every other Labour campaign since 2001.
In 2015, Labour under Ed Milliband won 9.35 million voters, in 2010 Gordon Brown won 8.61 million and in 2005 Tony Blair won the election with 9.55 million votes. In terms of the number of voters, Corbyn’s result was comparable to Blair’s second victory in 2001 when 10.72 million people voted Labour. 3
The fall in Labour’s vote can be largely attributed to the debate around Brexit. This is not the place to rehash this debate, but anyone wanting to know more can look at 2 articles on the subject which I wrote last year – one at the beginning of the year,4 and the other just after the election.5
It is still worth noting that for years Corbyn had been subject to a barrage of vilification led by the liberal press, most notably the Guardian, which offered its pages to anti-Corbyn “dissidents”. Among the many Guardian articles attacking Corbyn was one from Labour MP Jess Phillips threatening to “knife Corbyn in the front”6 and one from Tony Blair’s old fixer Peter Mandelson explaining how “I try to undermine Jeremy Corbyn every single day.”7
When Labour right wingers plead for party unity, it is worth remembering how unremitting the constant attacks on Corbyn were, at a time when Labour was supposed to be fighting an election.
Accusations of Antisemitism
At first, the campaign against Corbyn took many different forms. In 2016, the right-wing Spectator magazine published an article entitled “Jeremy Corbyn should not be allowed to rewrite the history of his support for the IRA.”8 The Daily Telegraph shrieked that he “called for ‘complete rehabilitation’ of Leon Trotsky in Parliament.”9 Meanwhile the Sun gleefully quoted disgraced former MP Simon Danczuk, who attacked Corbyn and John McDonnell MP for “celebrating Marx and Stalin.”10
These attacks were largely unsuccessful, and Corbyn’s popularity grew. Under his leadership, Labour Party membership trebled, making it the largest political party in Western Europe11. It was then that wild accusations of antisemitism started to accelerate. The Guardian in particular developed an obsession with “Labour antisemitism”, which was apparently something larger and more pernicious than antisemitism in society as a whole.
Although individual instances of antisemitism were recorded – as is inevitable in any organisation with over half a million members – the constant drip-drip of accusations in the press had an effect. Greg Philo and others reported that “When pollsters asked the British public what share of Labour members faced complaints of antisemitism, the average guess was 34 percent.”12 In a party with 550,000 members, this would mean nearly 200,000 antisemites.
In fact, the maximum number of Labour members who might be guilty of antisemitism had been estimated to be 0.3%, or 2,000 people.13 A YouGov poll of the members of all the major parties recently suggested that the Labour Party was the party least afflicted with the scourge of antisemitism14. Remember these figures, they may be useful later.
The Rise of Keir Starmer
Labour’s failure at the general election in December 2019 made a new leader almost inevitable. In the leadership election that followed, Keir Starmer was the clear victor, winning over half of the vote. Largely notable for his sharp suit and expensive haircut, Starmer gained the votes of many former Corbyn supporters for his promise to unite the party, which led some on the left to think that they were voting for “continuity Corbyn”15.
Despite this, one of Starmer’s first acts as party leader was to withdraw Labour’s support for Kashmiri independence – in defiance of policy decided at party conference. His stated reason for doing this was because “a Labour government under my leadership will be determined to build even stronger business links with India.”16
It is hardly surprising that some Labour members were a little sceptical, but many were a little overawed by Starmer’s “Ten Pledges”17, a list of guarantees that appealed to the radical reformism promised by Corbyn. Pledges such as those for climate justice, common ownership and the strengthening of workers’ rights led many to believe that all that had really changed was the person at the top.
The increasingly delusional Paul Mason, once a man of the Left, proudly said that he’d voted for Starmer as leader, saying “Starmer’s politics effectively embody late Rawlsian justice theory, in which democratic socialism is seen as a better route to social justice than a regulated market economy. That is the principle underlying his Ten Pledges, which should be the basis for a focused, radical programme for government centred on green investment and redistribution.”18
The pledge that maybe excited most people was Pledge #10 “Effective opposition to the Tories”. Facing a Johnson government that was somehow both corrupt and inefficient, many people would be satisfied to see any sort of challenge to the venal status quo. Despite being an isolated island, the UK had the largest number of COVID deaths in Europe.19 Surely anyone was better than this?
And here was the problem. The new Leader of the Opposition had seemingly lost any sense of how to oppose Johnson’s unscrupulous government. Time and again, when faced with the opportunity to savage Johnson, Starmer faltered, apparently being more concerned with showing the media and big business that he is “fit to govern”.
One of the most popular programmes on British television is “Gogglebox”, where members of the public are filmed watching and commenting on recent tv programmes. In a now notorious episode, people watched on gobsmacked as Starmer constantly evaded questions and repeatedly agreed with his Eton-educated opponent.20
As the Labour Heartlands website reports “Starmer responded constantly to Marr’s questions with ‘I support the government,’ This provoked one of the show’s family members to respond with the jibe ‘If this was a drinking game and you had to drink every time he said “I support the government” you would be drunk by now!’”21
Worse was to come. In October, Johnson introduced the “Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct)” Bill, commonly known as the SpyCops bill. As Anna Southern reported, the bill “will authorise undercover state agents to commit crimes as part of their work. It does not rule out murder, torture or sexual violence.22
This was a particularly provocative bill, it was introduced as reports were hitting the press about an undercover operation which the police had been running for decades, infiltrating mainly left-wing groups. Many undercover officers had started relationships with unsuspecting female activists, and some had fathered children whom they also deceived and later abandoned. Even the parents of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence had been spied upon.23
You do not have to be as radical as Jeremy Corbyn to oppose this measure. Yet Starmer ordered his MPs to abstain. The argument was that by abstaining, Labour could table amendments and, of course, would oppose the Bill on its Third Reading. Yet when it came to a Third Reading, Starmer enforced another abstention and only 34 Labour MPs voted against.
It gets worse. Labour front benchers Margaret Greenwood and Dan Carden, and five parliamentary private secretaries, were forced to resign for opposing the Bill which, to repeat, legitimizes the use of murder, torture and non-consensual sex (aka rape) by representatives of the British state. Labour continued to abstain on other bills, including one on Corona restrictions24, and there is increasing evidence that Labour will abstain on the coming vote on Brexit.25
Labour’s abstention on the Covid bill caused even Gary Neville, former footballer and hotel owner, to respond. According to Neville: “the Labour Party are there to protect the disadvantaged and the vulnerable … you’ve got to take a position … When you’re elected and you’re in that seat in Westminster, you take a position. You don’t abstain. You take part in the match. You’re the opposition. You’re the opposition. Don’t sit in the stand.”26
The Suspension of Jeremy Corbyn
This is the context in which Jeremy Corbyn was suspended, and in which Keir Starmer later ruled that Corbyn could no longer serve as a Labour MP. A dangerous government, an ineffectual opposition and hundreds of thousands of Labour members who hadn’t signed up for this. Those who had been prepared to give Starmer the benefit of the doubt were getting impatient.
The official reason for Corbyn’s suspension was his reaction to the publication of the EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission) report into antisemitism in the Labour Party. Corbyn had said that the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party had been dramatically overstated for political reasons by his opponents and the media.27
The EHRC ruled that its analysis “points to a culture within the [Labour] Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”28, yet this was not the only ruling. It also demanded that Labour “acknowledge, through its leadership, the effect that political interference has had on the handling of antisemitism complaints, and implement clear rules and guidance that prohibit and sanction political interference in the complaints process.”29
And yet this is clearly what Keir Starmer has done. Corbyn accepted the report’s findings, but said that “the scale of the problem [ie antisemitism in the Labour Party] was dramatically overstated.”30 Now let’s remember the statistics that we mentioned before. The general public perception was that a third of Labour members were guilty of antisemitism. The real figure was 0.3%. In saying that antisemitism in Labour had been exaggerated, Corbyn was simply speaking the truth.
The EHRC report explicitly said that “Article 10 will protect Labour Party members who, for example, make legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government, or express their opinions on internal party matters, such as the scale of antisemitism within the party.”31 And yet Keir Starmer removed the whip (preventing Corbyn from sitting as a Labour MP) from Corbyn for his “actions in response to the EHRC report”32, that is, for commenting on the reported scale of antisemitism within Labour.
Problems with the EHRC
It may also be worth saying that the EHRC is not the independent, unbiased organisation that it purports to be. EHRC Board member Alasdair Henderson has ‘liked’ or retweeted social media posts criticising Black Lives Matters protesters and describing the words misogynist and homophobe as “highly ideological propaganda terms.”33
After Philosopher Roger Scruton was called out for describing Jews in Budapest as forming part of a “Soros empire”, claiming Islamophobia and homophobia were “invented” and that homosexuality was not “normal”, Henderson liked a tweet saying “If Roger Scruton, one of our most esteemed thinkers and writers is drummed out of public life by the offence-taking zealots, we may as well pack up and go home.”34
Ammar Kazmi notes that “the immigrant-bashing, Islamophobic journalist Douglas Murray recently revealed that the Conservatives had asked him to serve on the EHRC. While Murray never actually joined the EHRC, the Tories have just appointed David Goodhart as one of its commissioners.”35 Goodhart has argued that the Windrush scandal, when hundreds of Black British citizens were wrongly deported “must not lead to a radical watering-down of the so-called 'hostile environment'.”36
In 2004, in an article called Too Diverse?, Goodhart argued that “significant NHS resources are spent each year on foreign visitors, especially in London. Many of us might agree in theory that the needs of desperate outsiders are often greater than our own. But we would object if our own parent or child received inferior treatment because of resources consumed by non-citizens.”37 This should be enough for us to question the EHRC’s impartiality when ruling on issues of racism.
In passing, let us remember that all sorts of people were accused of antisemitism, when all they had done was expressed solidarity with Palestinians. Two years earlier, the Labour Party conference had been awash with Palestinian flags.38 Now the slightest indication of support for an oppressed people was seen as proof of rampant antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Meanwhile, the problem of Islamophobia in the party was allowed to fester. A report by the Labour Muslim Network (LMN) found that more than half Muslim party members did not trust Starmer to tackle Islamophobia and had no confidence in the party’s complaints process.39 The Labour leadership thanked the LMN for the report40, but made no obvious changes to its practice.
This is before we start to talk about unchallenged Conservative Islamophobia. When the Muslim Council of Britain asked the EHRC to investigate Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, the EHRC said that this would not be appropriate41, even though Islamophobia is much more prevalent in the Conservative Party than antisemitism is in Labour. Only last year, Conservative leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Islamophobia is a 'natural reaction' to Islam and that 'Islam is the problem.'42
Why was Corbyn Attacked?
Maybe it’s time to make a brief diversion to investigate why Corbyn and the Labour Left are under attack. If you spend too much time on social media, as I do, you will come across the theory that Corbyn’s downfall has been orchestrated by the Israeli government with the help of the Israeli Lobby /Jewish Lobby (delete according to how woke you are).
While I don’t doubt that Israel has an interest in British politics, as has been shown by the Al-Jazeera documentary The Lobby43, I think that this argument gets things the wrong way round. Keir Starmer and his consorts do not behave the way they do because they are in the pay of the Israeli government. Their support for Israel is a natural consequence of their right wing politics.
Starmer has managed to rally behind him two groups of people. On the one hand, there are the people who were genuinely excited by the successes of Jeremy Corbyn. In the face of a hostile media onslaught, led by the liberal Guardian newspaper, they feel that the only way to enter government (and in their analysis take power) is endless compromise and to pretend that society is fine as it is.
But there is a second block behind Starmer – the Blairite right-wingers who slightly went into hiding while Corbyn was leader, but always held power within the party machinery. Unelected officials mainly kept their posts and Blairite MPs also had jobs for life, as deselecting them was almost impossible.
For these people – who had extraordinary access to the mainstream media – a Conservative government was always preferable to one led by Corbyn, and they did everything they could to sabotage Corbyn's chances. When preparing this article, I spoke to a Labour member who said “The PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and paid staff want to make the Labour party more like the SPD Phil, tell your readers that.”44
The musician and activist Brian Eno noted that “The Right reacted at first with incredulity at the prospect of somebody with a coherent progressive agenda becoming prime minister - and then used every dirty trick in the book to prevent it happening.45 In April 2020, Novara media printed a leaked report which showed how far they were prepared to go.46
Recorded conversations from the run up to the 2017 general election heard Party Executive Director, Patrick Heneghan, explicitly stating that he wanted Labour to lose two coming by-elections. The party’s senior management team diverted money away from key marginal constituencies to protect right-wing candidates and Neil Fleming, the party’s head of press and broadcasting, praised MP Nia Griffith as a hero because “she just stabbed Corbyn.”47
In other words, threats of antisemitism were weaponized as a reaction to Corbyn’s attempts to bring socialism to the Labour Party. Accusations of him being a Marxist or supporting national liberation struggles could be shrugged off, but the left wing people joining Labour in their masses were much more likely to be discouraged if they thought they were somehow facilitating racism.
As a response to the leaked report, the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) set up the Forde Inquiry to “undertake an independent investigation into the circumstances and contents of the report entitled The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019”.48
Writing on the Jewish Voice for Labour website, Dr. Alan Maddison posed the following questions, which he said had still not been satisfactorily answered and must be addressed by the inquiry:
“did some staffers and PLP members deliberately sabotage Corbyn’s 2017 general election campaign?
were unacceptable racist comments made, even given any context provided?
did Jeremy Corbyn and his team try to speed up, rather than impede, the processing of antisemitism complaints?”49
The most recent statement from the Forde Inquiry said “the Inquiry has moved into the next phase of reviewing and analysing these submissions and interviewing relevant individuals. The Panel will then prepare its report, taking into account the contributions it has received.”50 We have yet to see whether Jeremy Corbyn and the left will be vindicated, but as the right wing now have full control of the Labour apparatus, any victory will be pyrrhic.
Whatever happened to Momentum?
Corbyn’s suspension was, then, a big deal. How did the Left respond? Significant sections of the Labour Left were found wanting.
For years, many Leftists in Germany have hyped Momentum as being a new and dynamic way of organising the left. For example, Bruno Leopold wrote in Prager Frühling “Momentum is not just a type of popular “Pretorian Guard” for Jeremy Corbyn’s position as party leader, but also a powerful motor of political renewal and the revitalisation of a large party.51
In an interview just last year with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Callum Cant explained that “Momentum exists primarily as a party-orientated faction—its role is to dominate internal elections and democratic processes, and push a ‘new left’ line within the party. It’s been very successful at doing so—the Left now dominates basically every committee in the Labour Party. Wherever there are open and democratic elections, we win.”52
If Corbyn’s suspension was a time to test these hypotheses, then Momentum was found severely wanting. In reality, Momentum had long been the personal fiefdom of one man, Jon Lansman. Asa Winstanley reported in the Electronic Intifada that Lansman was “sole owner of Jeremy For Leader Limited, the company which receives Momentum’s membership dues.”53
Lansman had already occasionally indulged in attacks on Corbyn, suggesting that he be removed as party leader in 201654 and in 2019 claiming that “It’s now obvious that we have a much larger number of people with hardcore anti-Semitic opinions.”55 In this context, Rob Hoveman argues that Momentum “simply became a tool for canvassing and was only mobilised to select candidates where there were vacancies because of death or retirement.”56
In the elections after Corbyn’s resignation. Momentum supported Angela Rayner rather than the more left wing Richard Burgon.57 Momentum members were never even given the chance to support Burgon. Instead, they were given a ballot paper on which Rayner’s was the only name.58 In the end, only 52.15% of those casting a vote, or 12.5% of Momentum’s membership59 backed Rayner.
As a response to this crude form of ballot fixing, former Momentum national coordinator Laura Parker tweeted: "Although I am pleased Momentum's governing body accepted the principle of balloting its members on the leadership, I'm sorry they seem to have decided in advance what the answer is.”60
In 2020, in the wake of increasing criticism, Lansman stood down as Momentum chairman61, and a more explicitly left-wing stream within the organisation called Forward Momentum was formed62. Forward Momentum members have been less ambiguous in their support of Corbyn and his legacy, and have gained effective control of Momentum, but they have still been relatively impotent in the face of the witch hunt.
Other Labour Left reactions to Corbyn’s suspension
The Labour Left is much more than just Momentum, but a wide spectrum of the Left reacted indecisively to Corbyn’s suspension. The Socialist Campaign Group (SCG), which unites Labour left MPs, was divided. Corbyn never had the support of most of his MPs, and even after some gains in the 2019 election, there were only 32 members of the SCG. When Corbyn was suspended, only 18 of these 32 signed a letter calling for his reinstatement.63
Leftist celebrity writers called on Corbyn to apologise. Paul Mason posted the following on Twitter: “As far as I can see, JC issues an apology for Labour’s failings on AS and Nick Brown gives him back the whip. Not ideal for those who want to split the party and launch a sect, but a decent compromise for the rest of us – and would annoy the Blairites.”64
Interviewed on the BBC, Owen Jones accused Corbyn of a “lack of emotional intelligence”65, later repeating this allegation in his Guardian column66. Jones went on to call Labour to unite, accept the distress and move on. Just over a week after his television interview, he wrote an article called Both sides of Labour's internal war need to focus on a vision for Britain's future.67
Even Corbyn’s old friend and supporter John McDonnell, one of the 18 SCG MPs who signed the letter against his suspension, “urged Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to “keep on apologising” to Jewish people for the pain caused by anti-Semitism in the party”.68 This advice from McDonnell was well-intentioned at least, but it profoundly misunderstood the nature of the witch hunt.
Firstly, while it is true that many Jewish people were pained by worries of antisemitism, at least where Labour was concerned, this was mainly triggered by inaccurate reporting about the extent of the problem. Apologising would both confirm that “Labour antisemitism” was a specific danger and encourage Corbyn’s opponents to keep on coming back for more.
Secondly, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi was correct when she said “there is pretence really that it is about dealing with antisemitism because what we’re doing is we’re silencing critics of the leadership over a whole range of issues.”69 Starmer and co were instrumentalizing ungrounded fears of antisemitism to erase the memory of Corbyn and all he stood for from the party.
Apologising would just encourage further attacks. And however much Mason, Jones and McDonnell appeal to party unity and call for both sides to come together, this is of limited use when you are being purged. Of course, many individual left wing members, Wimborne-Idrissi included, continued to consistently resist the right wing attacks, but most leading figures of the Labour Left based their arguments on the need to unify with the same people who were attacking them.
The Suspensions Continue
While the party Left wrung its hands in despair, Starmer was far from done. In May 2020, David Evans was appointed general secretary of the Labour Party. Before Evans’s anointment, Fire Brigades Union leader Matt Wrack had warned that he had “played a key role in the party in the Tony Blair era when trade unions were sidelined.”70 In 1999, Evans had authored a memo suggesting that “representative democracy should as far as possible be abolished in the Party.” 71
On 26th November, following Corbyn’s suspension, Evans sent an e-mail to local party secretaries, ruling that “any motions of ‘solidarity’ (with anyone) or any motions discussing the processes of the Parliamentary Labour Party are out of order.”72 In short, even discussing Corbyn’s suspension in Labour Party meetings was verboten.
Evans’s justification was that “motions (including expressions of solidarity, and matters relating to the internal processes of the Parliamentary Labour Party) are providing a flashpoint for the expression of views that undermine the Labour Party’s ability to provide a safe and welcoming space for all members, in particular our Jewish members. Therefore, all motions which touch on these issues will also be ruled out of order. ”73
Evans also ruled that local Labour groups were not allowed to discuss motions about the removal of the Labour whip from Corbyn.74 This led to the ridiculous situation in Labour Berlin (and this is surely not the only case) where left wing activists could propose a motion of no confidence in the current leadership but were not allowed to mention the words “Jeremy” or “Corbyn” in their motion.
Labour members, including prominent Jews like Moshe Machover and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi were suspended for allowing debate.75 This meant that they were not allowed to attend Party meetings or to stand for office. The purge that was being carried out in the name of “the Labour Party’s ability to provide a safe and welcoming space for all members, in particular our Jewish members”76 was now being used to suspend Jewish members from the party.
Although the authorities suspending Machover ordered him to be silent, he published a reply saying “I disobey the anonymous inquisitors’ instruction, because I believe that these matters are best discussed in public, in the open, not in the secrecy that they desire. I publish, and let them be damned. I am not going to dignify their letter with a direct response, but allow readers of this open letter to make their own judgment.”77
The Labour Left was caught between a rock and a hard place. Stay silent and the witch hunt would go onwards, speak out and you could very easily be suspended yourself. And suspended members were not even allowed to speak about their suspension.78 For those who saw no future outside the party, this was not an easy decision. You may not agree with the tactic of staying silent (I don’t) but, in the party rank-and-file at least, it was generally not motivated by cowardice.
The aggressiveness of the attacks was too much for many younger people who had joined Labour because of Corbyn’s vision of hope. Suspended Jewish member Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi has compared accusations of antisemitism with those of paedophilia.79 In the face of such vitriol, it is unsurprising that many people stayed quiet in the hope that they could regroup and fight another day.
Labour Continues to Move Rightwards
On 29 November, the UN’s Day of International Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner attended a conference organised by the Labour Friends of Israel and the, equally pro-Israel, Jewish Labour Movement. At that meeting, Rayner – who was, lest we forget, the preferred candidate of Momentum - promised that “if I have to suspend thousands and thousands of [Labour] members, we will do that.”80 It was clear that she was referring here to defenders of Palestinian rights.
In December, Gemma Bolton, newly-elected member of the National Executive Committee, Labour’s ruling body, was placed under investigation for a tweet that she had posted 2 years previously: “If I run the risk of getting suspended for calling Israel an apartheid state then so be it. Suspend me. Because that comrades, is a hill I am perfectly happy to die on.”81
In Liverpool, City Councillor Tony Norbury was suspended for chairing a meeting which passed two motions pledging solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn and a third motion on free speech.82 It is a Kafkaesque world in which discussing free speech can get you suspended from a party which calls itself socialist.
After banning Bath Constituency Labour Party (CLP) from discussing all motions, except, ironically, one on George Orwell83, a party official banned the CLP from donating £3,600 to Bath Food Bank and to 2 charities. The justification used was that the responsibility of CLP’s was to “secure the return of Labour representatives to Parliament and local government bodies, by promoting the policies and principles of the Party throughout the Constituency”.84 The unnamed official threatened legal action if the CLP went on with the donation.
While all this was going on, Sir Keir Starmer personally wrote to property developer David Abrahams asking for money.85 Abrahams had stated Muslims have “mixed loyalties”, that conservative Muslim culture is inherently violent, and that Muslim youth have a propensity for suicide.”86 He had also implied that Black South Africans were happier under the white supremacist tyranny of apartheid than under democratic majority rule.87
None of this was unknown. In 2007, Labour had already been involved in one public scandal following donations from Abrahams.88 And yet Starmer’s spokesperson justified the approach to Abrahams by saying “We want to grow our funding as all previous leaderships have … Keir wrote to a variety of individuals who had previously donated to the party, it wasn't just David Abrahams."89
Labour's Shadow Minister for Faith, Janet Daby, said that there needs to be something in place that respects people’s conscience and views of faith” if they refused to certify same-sex unions90, a position that had only previously been supported by UKIP. It is a small mercy that Daby was forced to resign, but the fact that she was able to find a place on Starmer’s front bench speaks volumes.
There has been resistance to Starmer’s attacks. 175 local Labour party chairs wrote to Evans, telling him that his rulings were “undermining our efforts to build up our local parties.”91 A letter demanding democracy and free speech in Labour was signed by 230 officers in 160 CLPs. This is a quarter of all local Labour parties.92 By 12th December, over 230 CLPs had passed motions or written to Starmer to demand change.93 These figures are rising and being monitored by the Twitter account Solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn.94
Despite Evans’s attempts to stifle debate, by 7th December, 81 CLPs, 8 affiliated trade unions, 28 MPs and Young Labour had called for Jeremy Corbyn MP to be readmitted to the Parliamentary Labour Party, expressed solidarity with Corbyn, passed a motion of no confidence in Keir Starmer or David Evans, or called for the guidance to CLPs to be withdrawn.95 Some Jewish members and others are also threatening to take the Labour Party to court.96
This is all to be welcomed, and yet what a long way we have fallen in just 12 months. Last year, Labour members (and others) were engaged in a dynamic election campaign to tax the rich and nationalise the utilities and railways. Now they are petitioning for the right to mention the name of the person who led this campaign in internal meetings. The hope and excitement of the Corbyn years is now being squandered.
One reaction to the scale of Starmer’s attacks is to pretend that they are just not happening, or that the fact that the right wing are on the offensive proves that they have lost. This attitude was clear to see after the recent elections to Labour’s NEC. In the previous elections, in 2018, left wingers, running on the #JC9 slate won all available seats for representatives of local parties.97
In 2020, things were different. The highest number of votes from local parties went to the egregious Luke Akehurst, described by Asa Winstanley as a “professional Israel lobbyist, who is also a right-wing activist in the Labour Party.”98 Akehurst proudly identifies as “the guy who believes America were the good guys in Vietnam.”99
Two years after they had swept the board, left wing candidates, standing on a ‘Grassroots Voice’ slate, won only 5 seats.100 As Sienna Rogers reported “After the April by-elections and before the 2020 NEC elections, Starmer had 18 solid NEC votes (then of 38 members, though effectively 37 due to Pete Willsman’s suspension). He can sometimes rely on GMB backing, such as in the general secretary appointment, but these reps are considered swing voters. The Labour leader now has a net total of two more definitely supportive NEC members”101 (emphasis in original).
The fact that the Left has lost its control of the NEC owes much to Starmer changing the voting system used to elect the representatives of local parties102 (the voting system for all other NEC members was left unchanged). Whatever the reason, this was a serious defeat for left wingers who want a say in the party’s decision making process.
Not so if you read some left commentators. Under a headline “Left-wing Labour slate records upset in NEC elections”, the Morning Star breathlessly reported a “huge victory for the socialist left,” and that “Momentum celebrated victory for those on the Grassroots Voice (GV) grouping, saying it ‘showed that members want Labour to back a transformative, socialist programme.‘”103
I am all for looking on the bright side, but the only way that we can avoid making future defeats is to acknowledge the ones that we’ve suffered in the past. By refusing to accept that Starmer and his consorts now have hegemony in all Labour Party ruling bodies, part of the left is averting its gaze from the areas where we can experience short term victories.
Seeds of Hope
The years 2015-9 generated a load of hope and energy among young people. Some of these activists went on to become students at Manchester University, imprisoned this year in their student halls by the University in its inhumane response to the Coronavirus. The Manchester students organised the biggest University rent strike ever and won a 30% rent cut.104 Students of at least 20 other Universities quickly followed Manchester’s lead.105 Labour party members and councillors at a local level were clearly involved, but as a national organisation Labour was absent.
Manchester student and Labour member, Ben McGowan reported: “This environment seems to have all the perfect conditions for Labour to stand in solidarity with the student movement in their fight: unfiltered rage towards a Tory government, successful strike action, support from the trade union movement, thousands of young voters calling for a better standard of living. Yet the party feels invisible at the moment.”106
As Starmer concentrated most of his fire on people in his own party, opposition to the Conservatives was left to overpaid footballers and ex-footballers. We have already mentioned Gary Neville. Another Manchester United star, Marcus Rashford, fought against child poverty, forcing a government U-turn107. Starmer tried to claim credit for a campaign in which Labour had been notably absent.
When Starmer courted the racist vote, another Black footballer, Stan Collymore tweeted that “the most disturbing thing about the accepted on display racism popping up everywhere in the UK is how many Labour "people" have pivoted from democratic socialism to barely disguised racism based on the fact the party needs Dave the racist from Burnley's vote.”108
Time to leave Labour?
Many on the Labour Left are pleading with their comrades to stay in the party because “leaving is what the Right Wing want you to do.” I think that this doesn’t quite get it right. The Labour Right is perfectly happy with a compliant and silent Left, After all, it’s the left wing activists who disproportionately go on the knocker at election time. What Starmer and the Labour Right really want is to break all left wing organisation – both inside and outside the party. And the strategy of many Labour left wingers of stressing party unity is aiding and abetting them.
Rob Hoveman comments on a recent Momentum Rally in support of Corbyn:“Richard Burgon [just about the best current Labour MP: PB] urged Starmer to lift the suspension so that left and right inside the Labour Party could unite (behind Starmer) to attack the Tories. Like all but at most a couple of speakers, he failed to mention that Starmer was driving the party hard to the right. This means, for those who might not have noticed it, that uniting behind Starmer would mean supporting that rightward shift.109
Rob notes that another speaker at the rally, John McDonnell, spent much of his time attacking the “sectarians” who had left the Labour Party. “He also bracketed the sectarians with "agents provocateurs".110
Starmer’s increasing control of Labour is a blow to all socialists inside and outside the party, and there is a legitimate debate about whether our battles are best fought from inside or outside the Party. A vigorous debate among the Left is necessary, but such denunciations do not help the atmosphere in which this debate is held.
Rob Hoveman has argued elsewhere “the fact is that Jeremy did everything he could to appease the offensive from the right of the party and enemies outside the party who were disgustingly using antisemitism allegations for factional purposes. This was part of a more general strategy in the face of a Parliamentary Party which was overwhelmingly and often viscerally opposed to Jeremy and the left. The hope was that in seeking unity the right would play ball.”111
I understand that many people are not impressed by the British extra-parliamentary left, which has suffered some damaging splits in the recent past. Indeed, I would much rather that socialists stay organised within Labour than sink into inactive pessimism. But the question must be raised: is this the best we can hope for?
Forward to Peace and Justice?
Some people were hoping for Corbyn to leave Labour and create a new party, just as Oskar Lafontaine left the German SPD in 2005 to help form first the WASG and then DIE LINKE.112 Anyone aware of Corbyn’s historic loyalty to Labour believed this development unlikely, but while Corbyn remains a Labour member, he has made an interesting move.
While I was finishing off this article, Corbyn launched the Peace and Justice project, aimed at “creating space, hope and opportunity for those campaigning for social justice.”113 A video was released where supporters like Alexei Sayle, Lowkey and Ken Loach articulately explain why we should support the project.114 A launch event has been planned in January with speakers like Ronnie Kasrils, Zarah Sultana MP and Yannis Varoufakis.115
Sources close to Corbyn, whoever they are, insist that “it is not a step toward [a] rival party.”116 Instead it aims to “provide a platform for campaigns against war and in favor of concerted international action on the climate and soaring inequalities.”117 Any initiative based on internationalism which aims to activate everyone who has been inspired by Corbyn is obviously to be welcomed.
And yet the Project seems to be of itself insufficient to address the problems in hand. A broad transnational movement aimed at democratising Europe before it disintegrates sounds great. Indeed these are the exact words which Varoufakis used 5 years ago when he launched DiEM25 in Berlin.118 There are different assessments of the success of DiEM25, but it has not really fundamentally changed the balance of power in international politics.
This is not to say that the Peace and Justice project will necessarily follow the same trajectory. For a start, it seems to be more based in class politics and has the support of important trade unionists and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. But it must be prepared to face down potential problems. This is why I find it problematic that none of the announcements about the new project makes even a passing reference to Corbyn’s fight in the past 5 years against Keir Starmer and the Labour Right.
In the short term, it may be good to concentrate on the fight that we need to achieve social justice, but sooner or later we need to understand how our side could suffer such great and important defeats over such a short period of time, if only to avoid repeating this horrible experience. An honest debate is necessary. Nonetheless, the attempt to unite the Left inside and outside the party is important. I hope it leads to some serious joint activity.
Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader on a wave of euphoria and the belief that the world can be better than this. I don’t think that this feeling has gone away, but the self-belief of people on our side that we can actually effect change has been seriously damaged. The need for a loud, organised Left has never been greater.
A friend and comrade commenting on this article said: “you talk about euphoria. Well I now think that euphoria needed to be tempered by reality a lot sooner than it did. Because basically the majority of the PLP and staffers were at war with the membership from the get-go. The horrible irony is is that factionalism of the most brutal kind was wielded against Corbyn and his supporters and still is. Euphoria is all very well but you have to come down to earth and see that people in your own party are trying to destroy everything you believe in.”119
I agree, but believe that we must follow Gramsci’s tenet of “Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect”.120 The Starmer counter-revolution is real and should not be denied, but so is the massive wave of particularly young people who were invigorated by Corbyn. In the last few years, we have seen many ebbs and flows which need a strong left to help guide us through the currents. The best service that we can pay to Jeremy Corbyn and his legacy is to actively build that left.
1 Thanks to Rob Hoveman, Carol McGuigan and Anna Southern for commenting on an early version of this article. Both Carol and Anna were active Labour members during last year’s election campaign. Anna has since left the party, while Carol is considering her options. Both are highly dissatisfied with the current leadership. Rob was a Labour member from 1973-82 and has never returned.
3 Source: Lukas Audickas, Richard Cracknell, Philip Loft UK Election Statistics: 1918-2019: A Century of Elections https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7529/ page 12
10 https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/3511319/former-rochdale-mp-simon-danczuk-quits-labour-party-after-it-parachutes-in-a-corbyn-supporting-candidate-to-fight-for-his-old-seat/. Danczuk had been suspended by the Labour Party for allegedly exchanging explicit messages with a 17-year old girl https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-35204398
44 Personal correspondence
56 Unpublished manuscript
71 Meg Russell, Building New Labour: The Politics of Party Organisation p229
109 Post on facebook
110 Personal correspondence
111 Unpublished manuscript
118 See my report for Philosophy Football https://www.philosophyfootball.com/yanis-varoufakis-launches-democracy-in-europe-movement-diem25.html
119 Personal correspondence